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I like to think I don’t waste too much time with feelings of pining or hope, but I have to confess that one thing always gets to me at this time of year.
Spring is almost here, and everyone will soon be talking about The Cottage. This year, I hope I will finally be invited.
Even though I immigrated to Canada over 20 years ago, my acceptance into the elite group of Cottage-goers still awaits me.
When I first arrived, I thought I must be mishearing. In other countries where I’ve lived and worked, I’m used to people talking about their cottages, boats and vacation homes. But as I walked around my new office in Toronto, eavesdropping on co-workers’ conversations, or waited in supermarket checkout lines or at a bar, The Cottage was an endlessly recurring theme.
The terminology was consistent, and the conclusion unmistakable: Obviously, there is just one Cottage in Ontario. It is magnificent, a singular destination up in the woods and waters of the North. It seems that everybody I know knows about it, where it’s located, how to get to it.
“Oh, it’s up North,” they answer vaguely when I ask. I can tell they are hedging. It must be clear to them that I haven’t been invited yet. There is some elusive hurdle I haven’t mastered.
Some offer a bit more detail. “It’s in the Muskokas,” they say, “it’s close to Bala,” “it’s on Great Otter Lake,” or some other geographical obscurity.
I suspect many of them are playing with me, deliberately confusing the issue so that, if it came down to it, they could never be accused of giving away the location of The Cottage.
I can imagine it so clearly! Every summer, on hot weekend evenings as I lounge around my air-conditioned downtown condo, I watch the scene play out in my mind’s eye in graphic 1080-pixel detail: all my friends and colleagues descending on this property late on Friday evening; the smiles, the reconnecting, the hugs and handshakes. Catching up on the week, on gossip.
I envision a massive cedar ski lodge perched imperiously on Canadian Shield granite beside a lake. The grounds are littered with canoes, water skis and bonfire pits. In the evening, the property blazes with light, which is given form by huge clouds of barbecue smoke.
It must be a truly sprawling place, in order to accommodate all the people who make the trek. I’ve looked at maps of “cottage country’ and I know there’s ample real estate for it.
What fun it must be! In previous years, the odd friend has taunted me with an invite, “Oh, you and your wife must come and join us at The Cottage this year,” they say. We wait with bated breath, but of course the details never came.
The following week I ask, blithely: “So, how was The Cottage this weekend?” The answer is always a double-prick of envy and anticipation. It was wonderful, it was relaxing, the weather was perfect. So-and-so did this, we caught a pike so big. Aunt Barbara’s cousins stayed overnight and they broke the this-and-that. How we laughed!
Every spring, I wonder: “What do I need to do? What aspect of Canadian life am I deficient in that keeps me from joining everybody else during summer weekends?”
I’m not really a sports guy, so perhaps I’m missing out on frequent-attendance stamps from hockey games or baseball hot-dog kiosks? I’m not really a camping guy, so maybe I’m missing out on qualifying points from Mountain Equipment Co-op or the entrance booths of national parks? Part of my confusion is not knowing how membership is assessed.
So, every spring I tell myself the same thing: perhaps this year.
Maybe whatever organizing committee is responsible for such things will reach out to me. I will receive some Welcome Package, printed on luxurious silky paper.
I’ll be given driving directions, GPS co-ordinates and Google Maps printouts. There will be opportunities to sign up for pot-luck dinners, Scrabble tournaments or badminton games, or merely to accept responsibility for bringing a “two-four” to the side of the bonfire. I imagine stern warnings never to disclose the location of The Cottage to anybody who isn’t already in the know – people who are still in the shoes I will have left so recently. Perhaps there is some secret handshake or password to learn.
Above all will be the glorious feeling of being on the inside, of new vistas on the horizon, of some imminent transcendence.
There, I believe, I will feel community. I will be able to feel truly Canadian, as if kinship with rock and stone and root is my birthright. I will spend the entire weekend in intimate social contact with my Canadian brothers and sisters and with Mother Nature: We will all be one.
My anticipation – and my nervousness – grow. Winter is almost over, and Canadian winters are urban: movies, wine bars and restaurants. It is easy to ignore the outdoors in winter. But with spring approaching, the vision of The Cottage starts to fill the horizon with its blinding, halcyon light – and I can only hope.
Charles Leech lives in Toronto.
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